Shaw v. Reno

Following is the case brief for Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993)

Case Summary of Shaw v. Reno:

  • The State of North Carolina, in response to the U.S. Attorney General’s objection that it had only one majority-black congressional district, created a second majority-black district.
  • Five white North Carolina voters sued, alleging that the State’s reapportionment plan constituted an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
  • The District Court dismissed the suit, finding that race-based districting is not prohibited by the Constitution.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that the case should not have been dismissed because the voters made a valid claim under the Equal Protection Clause.  The Court remanded for analysis under that Clause.

Shaw v. Reno Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

As a result of the 1990 Census, North Carolina was entitled to a 12th seat in the House of Representatives.  Accordingly, the State devised a redistricting plan that created one majority-black district.  Under the Voting Rights Act, the State had to get approval for any congressional redistricting plan.  Upon seeking approval, the U.S. Attorney General objected to the fact that North Carolina had only one majority-black district.

Therefore, North Carolina created a plan that resulted in two majority-black districts.  The second district was strangely shaped to incorporate as many black voters as possible.  The Attorney General did not object to the revised plan.  However, five white North Carolina voters filed a lawsuit against federal and state officials.  They alleged that the district lines were so dramatically irregular that they constituted an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

Procedural History:

  • A three-judge District Court panel dismissed the suit as to the federal officials, stating that it lacked jurisdiction over them.
  • A majority of the panel also dismissed the suit as to the state officials, holding that the race-based district plan did not violate the Constitution, it was not adopted to discriminate against white voters, and it was done in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged probable jurisdiction.

Issue and Holding:

Did the North Carolina voters raise a valid Equal Protection claim that the State created a racially gerrymandered congressional district?  Yes.


The decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

If a reapportionment plan creates a district that is so irregular that the only reason for its creation is to separate voters based on race, then an Equal Protection challenge against that plan is valid.


The Court recognizes that States, over the course of our nation’s history, have sadly used many tools to suppress, or outright deny, the right of minorities to vote.  The racial gerrymander is one of those tools.

Yet, in this case, the voters in this case are not alleging that the white vote has been diluted. They merely allege that the redistricting plan is so irregular on its face that it is clearly an effort to segregate voters by race without appropriate justification.  We agree.  Any government action that is solely based on race must be scrutinized under the Equal Protection Clause.

Therefore, if legislation is facially race-neutral but cannot rationally be understood as anything but a separation of voters by race without sufficient justification, then a challenge to that legislation under the Equal Protection Clause is valid and should survive a motion to dismiss.  The District Court, on remand, must determine whether there is racial gerrymandering, and if so, determine whether the plan is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (White):

This same issue was decided in United Jewish Organization of Williamsburgh, Inc. v. Carey, 430 U.S. 144 (1977) with an opposite result, and the Court should not sidestep that case.  More importantly, the voters in this case have not alleged any injury.  It is simply not plausible for the white voters here to argue that the white majority’s influence over the political process has been canceled out.  The creation of a majority-black district makes up for centuries of discrimination.  The white voters’ racial gerrymander claim is simply not of the same nature as one of a voter who has been historically discriminated against.

Dissenting Opinion (Blackmun):

The Court has abandoned settled law to decide this case.  It is ironic that it does so when white voters challenge a law that would have North Carolina send a black representative to Congress for the first time since Reconstruction.

Dissenting Opinion (Stevens):

There is no constitutional requirement of compactness or contiguity for districts.  The Equal Protection Clause is only violated when a law seeks to hurt a minority group in voting.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter):

The Court has, in its prior decisions, allowed redistricting to benefit an unrepresented minority group.  The fact that it now chooses to apply strict scrutiny when a law is meant to benefit a race that has been the subject of historical discrimination makes no sense.


Shaw v. Reno is an important decision because it represents a conservative shift on the Court.  Specifically, it signals a pulling away from using the Equal Protection Clause to benefit black Americans, and rather provides some fodder for those who want to claim that laws benefiting black Americans in particular constitute “reverse discrimination.”  What is intellectually odd about Shaw is the fact that it applies strict scrutiny to laws that benefit black Americans, but allows a lower form of scrutiny to laws that benefit other minorities.

Student Resources:

Read the Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments